For more than a hundred years liberals and conservatives have been arguing over the true meaning of justice. The left emphasizes just outcomes—seeking smaller gaps between rich and poor, and a comparably dignified standard of living for all members of society. The right stresses just procedures --making sure that individuals keep the fruits of their own labors and remain secure in their property, without seizure by their neighbors or by government.
Liberals accept unequal, potentially unfair treatment by government in order to achieve fair results; conservatives accept unequal, potentially unfair results so long as every citizen receives fair and comparable treatment by government.
These arguments have raged for generations without definitive resolution, but that doesn’t mean that both sides are right, or that the questions that divide them offer no final answers. In fact, key Biblical passages provide a strong indication that conservative concepts of economic justice comport far more closely to the religious and philosophical foundations of western civilization. If the Bible is indeed the word of God (as a big majority of Americans say they believe it is), then it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the Almighty would cast his all-important ballot for Republicans.
For instance, as the weeks count down to the Jewish New Year this September, congregations around the world all read the same weekly Torah portions from the Book of Deuteronomy, including the famous exhortation, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” (Chapter 16, Verse 20). The obvious question on this verse is why the Bible repeats the Hebrew word, “Tzedek” – which means both “justice,” and “righteousness”. A great Polish sage from the late 1700’s, Rabbi Bunam of P’schischa, recorded a profound answer from the Tradition. The text uses the word “Tzedek” twice to make sure that when you pursue justice, you only use just-and righteous-means. In other words, the Biblical view directly contradicts the leftist inclination: no, you can’t unjustly confiscate wealth from those who created it to fulfill the righteous goal of helping the poor. The Bible insists that no matter how worthy your purposes, you must employ only righteous means in achieving them.
This understanding turns up repeatedly in Scripture. For instance, a key passage in the Book of Leviticus (19:15) declares: “You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great; with righteousness (Tzedek) shall you judge your fellow.” Amazingly, the Bible warns us not to “favor the poor” even before we’re instructed “not to honor the great,” because partiality for the unfortunate counts as an even stronger human temptation.
And what about all the Biblical demands, in both Old and New Testaments, to show compassion to widows, orphans and the poor?
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), the 11th century giant who became the most influential of all Torah expositors, explains that the verse in Leviticus draws an all-important, eternal distinction between charity and justice: “Do not say that since the wealthy man is obligated to help the poor one, it is proper for a judge to rule in favor of the poor litigant so that he will be supported in dignity. The Torah insists that justice be rendered honestly; charity may not interfere with it.”
In other words, assistance for the destitute remains an individual obligation on God-fearing individuals, but should not bring a tilt to the law to favor the less fortunate.
It is no coincidence, surely, that this crucial verse in Leviticus appears just two sentences away from the most famous declaration in all the Bible: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). This famous line makes clear that the same God who wants us to deal kindly with our fellow human beings, also requires that we respect and honor ourselves. You don’t demean or damage yourself for the sake of your fellow; the Bible consistently backs the conservative supposition that we help others best when we help ourselves.
If such Biblical passages strongly support the conservative conception of justice, then why are so many churches, synagogues and divinity schools filled with outspokenly liberal clergy?
The answer reflects differing approaches to Biblical interpretation, with literalists in every denomination who focus on Scripture as written, without attempts at alteration or updating, lean overwhelmingly to the right.
Of course, many committed leftists dismiss the Bible as an ancient irrelevancy, but its call for a process-oriented, no-respecter-of-persons concept of justice has lasted far longer than today’s sense of ruthless compassion and legal favoritism, and the sweet reason of Biblical logic will continue to engage the human spirit when tender-hearted political correctness is no more than a sour memory.
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